This page is part of © FOTW Flags Of The World website

France: Traditional provinces

Last modified: 2003-07-05 by ivan sache
Keywords: france | province | apanage | sugar |
Links: FOTW homepage | search | disclaimer and copyright | write us | mirrors

See also:

Historical and modern status of the provinces

The provinces in the Ancient Regime

In 1789, there were indeed three kinds of administrative divisions in the Kingdom of France:

  • The dioceses were ecclesiastic divisions, which dated back to the Roman times. Roman Catholicism was the official religion of France, which was known as "The Church's Elder Daughter" (La Fille Aînée de l'Eglise), following King Louis XIII's vow.
  • The provinces were military governments (gouvernements), mostly established in the XIVth century. There were 32 greater governments (grands grouvernements) and 7 lesser ones (petits grouvernements) enclaved into the greater ones. Earlier (XIIIth century) and smaller feudal divisions remained as subdivisions of the governments. They were called bailliages (bailiwicks) in the north of France, sénéchaussées in the south-west, and vigueries in Provence. The number and borders of the provinces varied with time. For instance, Saumurois was a lesser government under Henri IV and Louis XIII, but was later incorporated to the greater government of Anjou.
  • The généralités and the intendances were financial divisions, mostly established in the XVI-XVIIth centuries. An intendance was the territory administrated by an intendant, who was thr direct representative of the King. In 1555, the first maîtres de requêtes, later renamed intendants, were appointed. The intendants were the most powerful people of the kingdom after the King himself, and their position was often dynastic.

The borders of the different divisions did not match each other. This lack of unity was caused by the heterogeneous historical formation of France. The kings progressively incorporated to their own domain (domaine royal) large feudal and princely states, whose institutions and privileges they promised to respect. Some provinces (Brittany, Provence, Béarn) recognized the King only as their Lord, Count or Duke. Several of these states kept their political institutions (Etats, States) and administrated taxes. As an example, Provence, incorporated to France in 1481, kept its States in Aix-en-Provence and a specific "Provencal Constitution". Provence was divided into vigueries, but its two main cities, Arles and Marseilles, had a specific status of "adjacent areas with specific regime" (terres adjacentes à régime spécial).

As explained by Alexis de Tocqueville in L'Ancien Régime et la Révolution (1856), "the administrative centralisation was an institution of the Ancient Regime and not a realization of the Revolution and the Empire, as often wrongly assumed." As direct representatives of the Kings, the intendants gained more and more power, whereas the military governor's function became purely honorific as early as in the XVIIth century. At that time, Richelieu, one of the great reformers of the French state, believed that powerful military governors were more a threat than a protection for the royal power, and ordered the demolition of most fortresses located quite far from the borders. In parallel, Richelieu consolidated the power of the intendants, which was a convenient means to collect taxes from reluctant local lords and therefore consolidate the royal power.

The tax status of the provinces was also complex, at least nominally:

  • in the pays d'élections (most provinces), the taxes were administrated in each circonscription, called élection, by local representatives, called élus.
  • in the pays d'Etats (Bretagne, Bourgogne, Béarn, County of Foix, Languedoc, Provence and Dauphiné), the taxes were globally administrated by a provincial assembly, called Etats (States). Some former feudal states, although no longer governments, kept their States, e.g. Gévaudan, Velay and Vivarais. Of course, the King did not enjoy those States, who often opposed to his decisions, and progressively suppressed them or diminished their power.
  • in the pays d'imposition (Flandre, Artois, Lorraine, Alsace, Franche-Comté and Roussillon), which had been incorporated in the XVII-XVIIIth centuries, there was neither élections nor états, and the taxes were percieved directly by the intendants.

The provinces nowadays

However, the modern legacy of this complicated administrative system is rather small. The French Revolution suppressed the ancient divisions, and the intendances and généralités were completely forgotten, since they were the symbols of the financial oppression exerted by the King.
Conversely, the provinces, whose map explained the historical formation of France, were never forgotten. Their flags were most probably not used before the French Revolution, even as banner of arms, according to Hervé Pinoteau, heraldist and specialist of the Ancient Regime. The status of these flags is therefore weird: inhabitants of the provinces have promoted flags derived from ancient arms, which had been suppressed during the French Revolution, and have completely changed their meaning. It is therefore necessary to make a difference between the original meaning of those flags (indeed arms of uncertain use) and their modern use (flags showing a strong regional identity, used in cultural events, for tourism promotion etc.). An exception is Brittany, where the ancient banner of arms (plain ermine) is rarely used and was superseded by the modern Gwen-ha-Du, designed in the 1920s. Other exceptions are Corsica, Savoy and County of Nice, which were not parts of France in 1789 (that is the reason why I prefer to use "traditional provinces" than "historical provinces", since Corsica, Savoy and Nice were never military governments of the French Kingdom.

Most provincical flags are currently widely used, with some regional differences. The decentralization laws and the new interest for local identity probably boosted their use.

The apanage system

The system of apanage strongly influenced the territorial building of France and explains the banner of arms of severalFrench provinces.

The word apanage comes from low Latin apanare, "to feed", "to give bread" (panem). An apanage was a fief concession by the King to his youngest sons. Since the elder son became King when his father died, the apanages were considered as the share of the inheritance granted to the youngest sons. Of course, women were excluded of the system: a spurious interpretation of the Salic law, which dated back to the Franks and indeed prevented women to inherit land, prevented them to access the throne.

The apanage system was set up to avoid dividing the kingdom between the crown princes, as it had occured in 843 (treaty of Verdun) when Robert the Pious' Empire was divided between his sons Lothaire and Louis the Germanic. That division is sometimes considered as the source of the antagonism between France and Germany, at least in France, since the treaty was imposed by Louis to Lothaire.

King Charles V attempted to suppress the apanage system, to no avail. States conceded in apanage rapidly became de facto independent and hardly recognized the King's authority. Theoretically, the apanages could be reincorporated into the royal domain only if the last lord had no male heir. The Kings tried every possible means to get rid of the most powerful apanage states: for instance, François I confiscated in 1531 Bourbonnais, the last apanage state of importance, following the betrayal of the Constable of Bourbon.

The apanages were suppressed in 1792, short before the proclamation of the Republic. The youngest princes should have been given an allowance but no territory. The apanages were reestablished by Napoléon I and confirmed by King Louis XVIII. The last of the apanages, Orléanais, was reincorporated to the crown of France when Duke of Orléans became King of the French, as Louis-Philippe, in 1830.

The word apanage is still used in French in a non historical sense. Avoir l'apanage de, "to have the apanage of something", means, often ironically and in the negative form, to claim the exclusive possession of something.

Ivan Sache, 8 October 2002

List of the traditional provinces

Each page includes links towards the Region(s) and department(s) whose territory(ies) overlap(s) the former provincial territory, the history of the province and the explanation of its banner of arms, if known.

| Alsace | Angoumois | Anjou | Artois | Aunis | Auvergne | Lower Navarre (Basse-Navarre) | Béarn | Berry | Bourbonnais | Burgundy (Bourgogne) | Brittany (Bretagne) | Champagne | Comtat Venaissin | County of Foix (Comté de Foix) | County of Nice (Comté de Nice) | Corsica (Corse) | Dauphiné | Flanders (Flandre) | Franche-Comté | Guyenne and Gascogne | Ile-de-France | Languedoc | Limousin | Lorraine | Lyonnais | Maine | Marche | Nivernais | Normandy (Normandie) | Orléanais | Picardie | Poitou | Provence | Roussillon | Saintonge | Savoy (Savoie) | Touraine |

Ivan Sache, 8 October 2002

The provincial banners of arms on sugar cubes

A sugarcube series decorated with the French provincial banners of arms was released in 2002 by the French sugar house Béghin-Say.
Unwrapped, each paper has dimension 64 x 47 cm. It contains two lumps of sugar. This is type B2 according to the classification elaborated by the Club Français des Glycophiles.

This series is partially shown on Gwel's website. The image shows the coat of arms of the following provinces and pays:

  • 1st row: Angoumois - Anjou - Armagnac (Gascogne) - Artois - Aunis - Auvergne - Lower-Alsace - Béarn - Beaujolais (Lyonnais)
  • 2nd row: Berry - Bourbonnais - Burgundy - Bresse (Burgundy) - Brittany - Bugey (Burgundy) - Champagne - Comminges (Gascogne) - County of Foix
  • 3rd row: County of Nice - Comtat Venaissin - Corsica - Dauphiné - Upper-Alsace - Nivernais - Normandy - Orléanais - Pays Basque
  • 4th row: Périgord (Guyenne) - Picardie - Poitou - Provence - Quercy (Guyenne) - Roussillon - Saintonge - Savoy - Touraine

Not shown: Flandre - Franche-Comté - Gascogne - Pays de Gex (Franche-Comté) - Guyenne - Ile-de-France - Languedoc - Limousin - Lorraine - Lyonnais - Maine - Marche - Maurienne (Savoie) - Navarre.

All the provinces listed above are included in the series. I guess the pays have been selected to reach the number of 50, but other could have been added (for instance, Maurienne was selected in Savoy but not Chablais, Faucigny, Genevois and Tarentaise).

 Ivan Sache, 29 December 2002